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Jewish World Review April 4, 2003 / 1 Nisan, 5763

Seth Gitell

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Fighting house to house | Back in February, I wrote about the potential difficulties American forces would face if forced to fight in urban settings in Iraq. One conclusion I came to after talking to veterans of such operations, such as Israelis familiar with fighting in the densely populated village of Jenin, was that the Americans would be greatly helped by an increased number of Arabic speakers in their midst. I wrote "Israeli forces relied heavily on Arabic-speaking soldiers to allay civilians' fears and to move them out of buildings safely." Later, I added, "here, American forces could face a real problem. Israel has an unusually high number of Arabic speakers, both because all their fighting - and much of their civilian life - takes place in and among Palestinians and because demographically a large number of Sephardic Israelis come from Arabic-speaking families. But the US has a dearth of native-Arabic speakers. This problem has plagued the FBI's intelligence-gathering in the war on terrorism against Al Qaeda."

Now, more than two weeks into the war, the lack of Arabic speakers is hindering America's ability to cast itself as a "liberator" and posing practical problems for troops in the field. A Monday Wall Street Journal story headlined "In the Pursuit of Iraqi Enemies, Marines Must Go Door-to-Door" dramatizes this problem. The story reported an encounter where a small group of Marines searched a farm, but found themselves slowed up by the lack of ability to communicate with the Iraqis; (there were only two Arabic speakers in all of the 1,200-person Third Battalion.) "How do you say 'Where is?' " a lieutenant asked a Lance Corporal. "I got one for 'show me' but not 'Where is? sir,' the lance corporal answered. It took more than an hour for a translator to arrive on the scene.

The Marines and 101st Airborne, to their credit, are making do without translators as best as they can. According to reports from embedded reporters, the troops are working hard to allay the fears of the average Iraqis they encounter in quasi-urban encounters. At this point in the war, the troops are demonstrating a high degree of professionalism -- although this can be degraded over weeks and possibly months of tough combat.

The problem arises what happens if and when the American and British armies must actually go into Baghdad. The military leaders are still hoping that this can be avoided by simply surrounding the Iraqi city. It's possible that the regime will collapse once and for all when this happens. But, as my Marine friends repeatedly tell me, "hope is not a plan." If Baghdad must be taken by force, Arabic speakers will be even more important.

Last February, the Pentagon told me that they were fully prepared for the urban warfare contingency. Sources there even mentioned the training the Americans were doing with Iraqi exiles in Hungary. But so far those Iraqis haven't made it to the battlefield. Some hawks, such as JWR's Michael Ledeen have faulted the war effort for failing to use contacts with the Iraqi opposition enough. There is a complicated and long-running policy battle between some in the Pentagon, who favor helping to put into place the Iraqi National Congress (INC) as the next government of Iraq, and the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency, who have their own favorites. The arguments of those partial to the INC has been damaged to an extent because the assessment they pushed, that the military camp in Iraq would be easy, has not worked out the way many hoped.

But this internal policy battle might be responsible for failing to provide American troops with the large number of Iraqi speakers they need. One huge failing with our political system -- dating back to the era of Alexander Hamilton -- is that factionalism can impede progress. To me, the policy battle between Pentagon and State battles not one wick when juxtaposed with the lives of Americans soldiers and Iraqis. This problem could have been solved before forces were in the field.

The Wall Street Journal reported also this week that the Hungary program had been disbanded. Hopefully, its participants are being rushed to Iraq so that problems, such as those experienced by the Marines in central Iraq, can be minimized.

It's possible that US troops will be able to rely on members of the Iraqi opposition, such as the Iraqi National Congress, to communicate with Baghdad's citizens. It certainly would make sense to use the opposition in this way. Yet that, too, poses practical difficulties. One of the most important things for military units is unit cohesion, something opposition members could unwittingly or even intentionally disrupt. It's not yet clear how much training ordinary units - aside from Special Operations Forces, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and so on - have had with members of the opposition. If the Battle of Baghdad gets to the point where less-well-trained military units are fighting building-to-building, the lack of Arabic speakers or the lack of training with Arabic speakers will be a problem.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix Comment by clicking here.

03/21/03: After the war Will Bush's promise of democracy for Iraq be kept?
03/12/03: The North Korean hawks are missing the big picture
02/21/03: Urban fight: Military takes lessons from Mogadishu, Chechnya, Jenin
02/13/03: Imagine that, Bin Laden not listening to Chris Matthews!
02/06/03: Powell's powerful presentation
02/05/03: Making the case that Saddam Hussein is linked with Al Qaeda
01/31/03: Gen. Schwarzkopf is against going to war with Iraq. Since he messed things up so bad the first time around, why is anyone listening to him now?
01/24/03: Cynthia McKinney for president
01/16/03: The Sharpton test
01/13/03: Lieberman is in a pickle --- and it's becoming increasingly more sour
12/26/02: Where does the war on terror go from here?
12/23/02: Why democracy never came to Iraq after the last Gulf War
12/20/02: Vermont governor Howard Dean hopes to bridge the gulf between New England and the Western states, and bypass the socially conservative South. Should John Kerry be worried?
12/18/02: No Gore 2004: Follow the Money
12/06/02: Gore, like Dicken's Jacob Marley, Dead as a Door-nail
10/24/02: War with Iraq may not happen, after all
10/22/02: Winning European hearts and minds
10/18/02: Lieberman makes 'em laugh --- on purpose
10/04/02: Hawking an interpretation (in which Scott Ritter tells our columnist to 'go to H-LL!')
09/13/02: Bush Challenge to U.N. Members: Are You Better than League of Nations?
09/06/02: Iraq attack: Ritter's reversal
08/30/02: Stick with comedy, Jon Stewart
08/16/02: Green around the gills: Nader Effect could cost the Dems the election in three states
08/01/02: Gore's low profile is no accident
07/31/02: President Hillary? Despite her denials, candidacy is not that unlikely
07/26/02: On the road with John Kerry
07/17/02: Meet the 'Clinton' of the 2004 New Hampshire primary
07/12/02: Ancient rivalry: Williams vs. DiMaggio
07/10/02: Warrior spirit
05/08/02: Hosting a TV show will keep Clinton off the streets
04/26/02: Truth in advertising in SaudiLand --- and ours
02/28/02: Time for hipsters to do a reality-check

© 2002, Seth Gitell